With her dark, wavy hair, as well as her confident gaze, plucked eyebrows and well-defined lips that hint at a coquettish smirk, the glamorous twenty-something Joan Miller, pictured on the cover of my edition of One Girl’s War, could be some long forgotten starlet of the late 1930s. She is, instead, the author of this unusual, succinct and charming Second World War memoir.
I first became aware of Miller towards the latter stages of 1986, by which time OneGirl’s War had brought her a small measure of posthumous notoriety. Her book originated in an interview she gave to a journalist from the Sunday Times colour supplement. The ensuing feature appeared under the sensationalistic title, “MI5’s Mistress of Espionage”. Promptly snaffling the bait, Weidenfeld & Nicolson arranged for a ghostwriter to expand Miller’s experiences into a book, scheduled for publication during May 1984. Her uncredited collaborator was Patricia Craig, a Northern Irish writer who would go on to flourish as a critic, anthologist and autobiographer. But Miller’s publisher dropped One Girl’s War when the company received a letter from lawyers representing the British government. The lawyers claimed that she and Weidenfeld & Nicolson would be contravening the Official Secrets Act if her memoir were released.
Undaunted by the threat of prosecution, Brandon Books, a doughty little Irish firm, came to her rescue by agreeing to publish One Girl’s War and then to distribute it in both Britain and the Republic of Ireland. Sir Michael Havers,the Attorney General in the Thatcher government, responded by obtaining injunctions in the London and Dublin courts, preventing the book’s sale or distribution. From the British authorities’ point of view, the danger posed by One Girl’s War stemmed not from the book’s contents but from the fact that it reinforced a dangerous precedent. This had been set by Whitehall’s bungled attempt to block the publication of Spycatcher, Peter Wright’s scandalous account of his work as an MI5 officer. If Miller could also get away with disclosing her MI5 experiences, what was to stop other Security Service staff – who had all signed the Official Secrets Act – from flouting their obligations by publishing memoirs? Not that the long out-of-date material in One Girl’s War was likely to threaten MI5’s effectiveness.
Although Brandon Books succeeded in overturning the Irish injunction, they had no such luck in the British courts.To obtain a copy of Miller’s book, I had to purchase it by mail-order from the Republic of Ireland. Opening its cover generated the type of frisson of illegality that people must have felt in the 1950s when they read the famous green-jacketed Olympia Press edition of Lolita,smuggled in from France. One Girl’s War has, however, little else in common with Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece. In style and tone, Miller’s book is far closer to Love Lessons and Love Is Blue, the two published selections from Joan Wyndham’s wartime diaries. Like those tremendously entertaining volumes, much of its vivid wartime atmosphere is conjured through a bluestocking vocabulary, permeated by distinctively old-fashioned and emphatically posh insouciance.
OneGirl’s War begins in the opening days of September 1939 when its twenty-three-year-old author was holidaying on the Channel Islands. She recounts how rumours of an imminent declaration of war between Britain and Germany led her to make preparations forcatching the ferry back to the mainland, where she had a job with Elizabeth Arden, the cosmetics and women’s accessories company. “While I waited,” she wrote, “I wandered along to visit a fortune-teller, known to me from theprevious year, who used a pretty grubby pack of cards to predict the future. On this occasion, she told me that I would shortly find myself behind bars.”
Pestered by her absentee mother into registering for appropriate war work, Miller had, through an old school friend, already secured a post at MI5. Once war was declared, she received a summons from the Security Service, the better-known acronym for which lingers from when it was a branch of Military Intelligence. The summons instructed her to board a bus waiting for her outside the Natural History Museum. In accordance with the fortune-teller’s prophecy, the bus’s destination was His Majesty’s Prison Wormwood Scrubs, located in one of London’s drearier suburbs. MI5’s headquarters turned out to have been transplanted there.
Alongside many girls from her background,Miller ended up working as a secretary for the Security Service. Before long, she moved into more varied employment at Section B5b, a unit that occupied a one-bedroom flat within the luxurious, recently opened Dolphin Square development, just down the river from the Houses of Parliament. Run by Maxwell Knight, the novelist, spy-hunter and amateur naturalist, famous for taking his pet bear-cub for walks through Chelsea, Section B5b had previously been devotedt o monitoring the Communist groups that hoped to foment revolution. By 1939 the focus of Knight’s work was the more immediate danger presented by British-based fascists. Many of them belonged to organisations such as the British Union, which had been established by Sir Oswald Mosley, the former Labour Party cabinet minister. Another of those fascist groups was the much smaller, fanatically anti-Semitic Right Club, operating under the leadership of a Scottish Unionist MP named Captain Ramsay. His wife boasted about how he’d been promised the post of Gauleiter for Scotland in a future Nazi puppet government.
Until I read One Girl’s War, I’d never heard of either Ramsay or the Right Club. At the behest of Maxwell Knight, Miller infiltrated the circle around Anna Wolkoff, among Ramsay’s most vigorous supporters. Wolkoff was a famous émigré Russian fashion designer whose clients had included Wallis Simpson. Down on her luck, having lost her family’s pre-Revolutionary wealth, her clothes business and her looks, Wolkoff had become the pivotal figure within a gaggle of Right Club supporters that convened at the Russian Tea Rooms, her parents’ South Kensington café-cum-restaurant. There, she and her friends discussed the political and military situation. As well as possessing direct links to high-ranking Nazis, at least two of Wolkoff’s coterie were smuggling letters to Germany, whose mooted invasion of Britain they welcomed.
Early in 1940, Wolkoff was befriended by a handsome, womanising young American by the name of Tyler Kent. Her new chum worked in the Code Room at the US Embassy, which served as the conduit for all diplomatic communications between Washington and America’s numerous embassies and consulates in Europe. Through Tyler Kent, she gained access to the top-secret correspondence between Winston Churchill and President Franklin D.Roosevelt. Contrary to the American leader’s public declarations about maintaining his country’s neutrality, he and Churchill were discussing how toinvolve the United States in the war. Armed with these telegrams, Kent – who was also purloining a vast array of other transatlantic communications – had the power to alter the outcome of the entire conflict.
For almost thirty years now, I’ve been fascinated by the real-life espionage drama enacted by Kent, Wolkoff and Knight between the summers of 1939 and 1940. When I eventually secured a commission to write a book about it, I copied all of the relevant declassified MI5 files that had been released into the National Archives in London. Five or six months passed before I worked my way through to the documents mentioning Joan Miller. Unsurprisingly, there was a disparity between these and the account she’d givenin One Girl’s War, but the difference seemed to go beyond what might be ascribed to the vagaries of memory. Confident perhaps that MI5 would never catch her out by disclosing the background paperwork, Miller had exaggerated her role in the successful prosecution of Kent and Wolkoff, who found themselves starring in what one leading American newspaper dubbed “the biggest spy trial of the war.”
The self-aggrandising slant that she gave the material can be explained by the circumstances in which her book was written. By that stage, Miller – now sixty years old and in ill-health – was living in Malta under the new identity of Joanna Phipps, her surname bequeathed to her by a failed marriage. Strapped for cash, she sought to extricate herself from her financial woes by producing a bestseller. Dramatic exaggeration provided an obvious means of achieving that objective. So too did her willingness, conscious or otherwise, to bend, distort and embroider the truth –a willingness shared by many a good storyteller. Probably scenting an opportunity to create valuable controversy and to settle an old score, she even made a dubious allegation about her former boss and boyfriend, Maxwell Knight, who had gone on to secure post-war fame as a broadcaster and writer on natural history. Miller alleged that Knight, who was no longer around to defend himself, had lived a double-life as a homosexual, a preference not yet purged of its widely held taint.
For all Miller’s self-serving distortions, One Girl’s War – which wasn’t published until after her death – never became the bestseller that she sought. It is nonetheless a much-quoted volume that offers a rare and beguiling, if not altogether trustworthy, portrait of MI5 operations in wartime London. Then again, trust has never been an abundant commodity in the world of espionage.